Island life: a gourmet weekend on the Great Barrier Reef

A gourmet weekend, with menus from a celebrated French chef, is all part of the strategy to turn Hamilton Island into a food-lover's paradise, writes Michelle Hurley.

Deftly wrapping a loin of yellowfin tuna in basil with his self-described "sausage fingers", Bennelong chef Guillaume Brahimi - holding court during a masterclass at Qualia resort on Hamilton Island - takes a moment to remember a call he took from a pesky television producer some years ago. "I'm a little bit upset to say I did get a call from someone asking me to be a judge [on MasterChef]. I said, 'I'm not interested, thanks, guys,' and hung up. George Calombaris did it, and he seems to have done all right."

A few years later, one of Brahimi's three young daughters had a novel idea: "Dad, why don't you go on MasterChef?" Brahimi had to admit not only to his children but also to his wife, Sanchia, that he'd blown his chances. Her response? "Never, never again say no without asking me."

Brahimi, the guest chef at Qualia's most recent Great Barrier Feast gourmet weekend, continues to drop bons mots throughout the 90-minute class. When asked about the parlous state of the restaurant trade this winter, he opines: "You are what your customer wants ... I'm happy to be the little onion soup!"

About 70 guests are perched on tiered seats in the resort's Long Pavilion to watch Brahimi demonstrate the finer arts of French cooking. It's all part of a weekend of superior eating - with two degustation dinners and two Brahimi-hosted masterclasses - and drinking, sampling the various labels of Robert Oatley Vineyards (the Oatley family owns Qualia, and Hamilton Island) and more Veuve Clicquot than a sensible person should quaff in one weekend (the champagne house sponsors the feast). It's also part of a long-term strategy to reposition Hamilton Island as a foodie bolt hole for time-poor Sydney and Melbourne urbanites looking for an indulgent long weekend or more.

The resort offers 60 hillside pavilions, overlooking the Coral Sea. Each has an oversized lounge, bedroom and bathroom, festooned with lovely touches: Aesop toiletries, beach towels for wrapping up in after a dip in the infinity plunge pool, a complimentary bottle of Veuve on ice.

Most impressive of all, however, are the Jamie Durie-designed gardens, which have matured over the five years since Qualia's opening to provide a truly beauteous landscape.

Brahimi's seven-course showpiece dinner is the main event, held on the Saturday night. He serves up a faultless series of dishes - scallops with lemon emulsion; watercress velouté and Sterling caviar; crisp-skin barramundi with carrot and ginger purée, coriander and pommes allumettes; and the best wagyu beef I've yet tasted (a deboned rib-eye of Tajima wagyu with shimeji mushrooms, baby spinach, confit of shallot, merlot sauce and Paris mash), all paired with Australian wines chosen by wine writer James Halliday.

It's a clever concept - the Great Barrier Feast weekend is now in its third year; previous celebrity chefs who have hosted include Quay's Peter Gilmore, Tetsuya Wakuda and MoVida's Frank Camorra. The next feast, on September 14-16, will star Longrain executive chef Martin Boetz, whose Asian flavours should meld perfectly with the tropical climate. Clearly, Qualia has found its niche.

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And why not? What's not to like about a long weekend, eating and drinking in the sun?

The writer travelled courtesy of Hamilton Island.

Guillaume Brahimi's basil-infused tuna

2 bunches basil, leaves only

4 pieces yellowfin tuna loin (100g each)

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

¼ red coral lettuce, torn into small pieces

¼ green coral lettuce, torn into small pieces

4 chervil sprigs

Mustard seed and soy vinaigrette

50ml soy sauce

juice of 2 limes

30ml pickled ginger

juice (drained from pickled ginger)

2 tsp yellow mustard seeds

375ml olive oil

To make mustard seed and soy vinaigrette, combine soy sauce, lime juice, ginger juice and mustard seeds in a large glass bowl. Slowly add olive oil, whisking continuously until combined. Place vinaigrette in fridge to infuse for 2 hours.

Blanch basil leaves in boiling water for 30 seconds, then plunge into a bowl of iced water. Remove and drain, then gently pat dry between 2 clean tea towels.

Place tuna on a length of plastic film and season with salt and pepper. Cover each piece of tuna with blanched basil, stretching leaves over top and overlapping a little down sides so that no part of the tuna is left exposed. Turn over and repeat on other side until tuna is completely covered by basil. Tightly wrap each piece in plastic film.

Toss coral lettuces in a bowl with 2 tbsp vinaigrette and arrange on serving plate.

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil and add wrapped tuna. Remove from pan after 30 seconds and gently unwrap plastic film. Slice tuna on diagonal, then dip into bowl of reserved vinaigrette to cover completely. Take out straight away and arrange on lettuce. Sprinkle tuna with salt, place 1 chervil sprig on each tuna piece and serve.

Serves 4

- The (Sydney) Magazine

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